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Maine Democrats' Revenue-Sharing Bill Wins Legislative Approval
02/11/2014   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

Majority Democrats in the Maine Legislature today advanced a plan that will deliver $40 million in revenue-sharing funds to Maine cities and towns. Following the strong initial vote in the Senate, the bill is expected to be finally enacted in the House Thursday - despite pleas from Senate Republicans to defer a final vote until the end of the month. A.J. Higgins has more.

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Democrats in the House easily surpassed the veto-proof, two-thirds threshold when they approved the municipal revenue-sharing bill last week by a margin of 114-21.

When the bill reached the Senate, it was clear that nearly all of the body's 15 Republicans had decided they could no longer oppose the measure. Just before LD 1762 received preliminary approval in a 33-2 vote, Sen. Gary Plummer, a Windham Republican, seemed to sum up the collective feeling of his caucus.

"I stand before you to tell you, I surrender, you win," Plummer said. "I run up the white flag. You have given me no other choice. If I want to support revenue-sharing, I am being forced to vote for this bill."

In a strategic move two weeks ago, Democrats sparked a minor partisan dust-up when their majority members on the Appropriations Committee endorsed the revenue-sharing bill with no Republican members present. Democrats claimed that Republican members walked out of the meeting prior to vote and Republicans claimed they didn't know the vote was coming.

That set the stage for a coordinated lobbying effort by police and fire unions, education officials, the Maine Municipal Association and just about anyone concerned about rising local property taxes. Following last week's veto-proof vote in the House and several attempts to amend the bill, action moved to the Senate, where Republican Leader Michael Thibodeau of Winterport, pleaded for members to consider their votes carefully.

"I just caution this group," Thibodeau said. "I know that the Republican caucus currently does not have a plan to close the 2014 budget. I think that's why you've heard pushback from some of our members about this. I certainly hope that the folks that have decided that this is a priority - but not only a priority, but something that needs to be fast-tracked - I hope they have a clear plan to close that 2014 budget."

Under the Democratic plan, the $40 million for revenue sharing would be covered by transferring $21 million from the state's so-called Rainy Day Fund, $4 million from an income tax reduction fund, and $15 million from new projected state revenue.

The money is not needed until the new fiscal year begins on July 1, but municipalities are already planning their upcoming budgets and want action now.

Republican Sen. Roger Katz unsuccessfully argued for his seatmates to hold off on the withdrawal from the Rainy Day Fund by supporting his amendment that would defer a decision until new revenue projections are established at the end of the month - particularly since the state must resolve several budget shortfalls before June 30.

"Why on God's green earth do we have to paint ourselves into a corner today on how to pay for it?" said Katz. "So the amendment says yes, restore revenue sharing, and no, let's not paint ourselves into that corner today. Let's leave the decision to next week, or next month or the month after, when we have all the information we need."

Portland Mayor Mike Brennan is among supporters of the Democratic plan who point out that Maine cities and towns took a $75 million revenue-sharing hit in the last state budget and are no longer willing to wait for a commitment they can get now.
"This $40 million is critical to municipalities that are trying to put together their budgets," Brennan said.

Sen. Dawn Hill, the Democratic co-chair of the Legislature's Appropriations Committee, says the lawmakers owe it to Maine's cities and towns to keep their revenue-sharing promise.

"Just like the state, the municipalities need to base their budgets on a revenue forecast," Hill said. "They need to know what's coming their way to draft their budgets. And more importantly, they're doing those budgets right now."

Contrary to published reports that Gov. Paul LePage would first veto - and then wouldn't veto - the revenue-sharing bill, his press secretary, Adrienne Bennett, says LePage will now make a decision when he has received the bill.



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